In this day and age, even the most beloved gameplay formula needs some spicing up every now and then. In Overwatch’s case, Blizzard is rather enthusiastically embracing this idea by introducing an experimental playlist to the game. Unlike the PTR, the experimental playlist is intended to test drastic, fundamental gameplay changes that may not ever see the light of day. The first experiment was a triple DPS, solo Tank role lock. To compensate for the loss of a Tank position, most Tank Heroes also got some drastic buffs solely for the playlist.
Overwatch's Bizzare Gamemode Experiment
As one can probably expect, the immediate effect was that Tanks feel more like mini-bosses than, well, normal Overwatch Heroes. Since the distinction between off and main Tanks is gone, every Tank has to be able to simultaneously take and hold space. This is largely enabled by various stat buffs and supercharged abilities. For example, Zarya can more or less bubble her entire team all at once, D.Va is basically a damage sponge, and Roadhog creates a cloud that buffs the team’s damage resistance when he self-heals. It’s essentially taking the defining feature of each Tank and then buffing it through the roof.
As far as I can be told, it seems like Tank players enjoyed their mini-overhauls. It would be hard not to given that the buffs would break the balancing of normal playlists. In spite of this, the overall experience has been a bit more mixed, to put it mildly. For starters, there’s a lot more pressure on the solo Tank to perform well. Secondly, it turns out that most Tanks can’t cover more than one direction, much less three potential directions. It’s almost comically easy for the three DPS to threaten the backline since there is no second Tank to guard the flank. Not that the backline has much to do with only one obvious meat shield to heal and three DPS that are all over the place.
On top of that, having only one Tank greatly limits a team’s ability to adapt. It quickly became obvious that a semi-competent Widowmaker or Hanzo (or any similar hitscan Hero) could force the other team into a very difficult situation. If a Tank goes Winston or D.Va to counter, then their team loses their main source of protection. If the Tank goes Reinhardt or any other shield Tank, then their team just gets picked off from every angle due to a lack of mobility. Counter-sniping is an option, but then it just turns every Overwatch game into a death match.
Fundamental Changes to the Overwatch Meta
It goes without saying that some crowd-control effects are more effective without a second Tank to peel. After all, a hacked Tank is just as good as a dead Tank. With three DPS Heroes on each team, a dead Tank can also more easily lead to snowball situations. Overwatch was simply never balanced with that kind of potential damage in mind. On the other side of things, DPS players likely never had an easier time influencing the outcome of a match—certainly a far cry from the days when having no DPS Heroes on a team was a viable strategy.
Fortunately, it should be kept in mind that the experimental playlist is exactly what it sounds like experimental. There’s no guarantee that any of the changes introduced in the experimental playlist will ever make their way to Overwatch’s core playlists. Having an isolated place where Blizzard can test extreme balancing changes en masse is a fantastic idea though.
Indeed, some of the Tank changes have some merit to them, if not for existing Tanks, then for future Tank Hero design. Roadhog’s healing cloud, for example, gives him more utility in a team fight scenario, which is needed if Blizzard wants to make him more than a fat DPS. Zarya’s multi-bubble, while not a particularly balanced idea, could pave the way for a more modular bubble ability in the future.
Our Final Word
The real question is, how far is Blizzard willing to take the experimental playlist? The first test, while technically a failure in that it didn't do much other than prove that 2/2/2 is the most optimal way to play, still provided some useful feedback regarding why Tanks are so important in Overwatch. The next step is, presumably, complete overhauls and things of that sort for underperforming (or overperforming) Heroes—either that or tweaks to unpopular modes. Regardless, the mere existence of the experimental playlist is as good a sign as any that Blizzard is doubling their efforts on keeping Overwatch relevant, at least until Overwatch 2 comes out.